Six Nations is claimed the best of all rugby championships
JOHN KELLEY IN PORTSMOUTH, ENGLAND
THE massively popular Six Nations Championship gets underway on 4 February in Europe and continues until 18 March following 30 gruelling and always dramatic matches involving England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France and Italy. This is the traditional time of year for a championship rugby festival that began way back in 1883.
27 years after it started with various internationals, these formally coalesced into the Five Nations championship in 1910 until 1939. The World War intervened and it re-started in 1947 until 2020 when Italy was brought in following sufficient improvement to make it The Six Nations.
England and Wales have both won it 39 times. Scotland and Italy have never done so.
The aim of five of these countries will this year be to dislodge France as champions. They are seen presently by many as the best in the world, jointly with the Springboks. Possible successful challengers for the championship could be Ireland, who finished second last year and England, who are always fancied despite recent poor form and several internationals defeats.
But it will be a considerable task. France are famous for a fast, open and innovative backline leading to spectacular tries in the 2022 campaign.
Focus on England in the build-up weeks has been due mainly to a change in strategy under new coach Steve Borthwick. He was also the players’ favourite for the appointment, not least because he declares positive and attacking high-speed play as the winning formula. Borthwick recently took over from Eddie Jones who switched to coaching Australia following seven generally successful years at Twickenham before being sacked last month.
The annual organisers of ‘Six Nations’ (the participating nations jointly) and the sponsors Guinness, claim that it is the finest and most popular championship in the world.
But is that claim valid in the face of the World Cup or recently the annual series of internationals involving South Africa, New Zealand, Argentine, Australia and Pacific Islands?
Enormous crowds in European stadiums think so. The matches are splendidly nationalistic and dedicated gatherings of rugby enthusiasts, especially noted for their singing of national anthems at matches.
The intensity of each occasion is lifted further by cheering in unison and the roisterous singing of “La Marseillaise,” and “Land of my Fathers” plus the others, that seem to bounce off stadium roofs. Attendances can be as many at 80 000 colourfully adorned fans. The exception is England’s “God Save our Gracious King” which is a bit ponderous by comparison.
Rugby in Britain, both the Union and the League varieties, is a big factor in development of sport and has been so for about 150 years. Not only are crowds well behaved but so are the players with their respect for referees, which certainly cannot be claimed in football. It is one of the attractions.
In Zimbabwe there has been long-lasting pride in the famous 10-8 defeat of New Zealand at Hartsfield Ground in Bulawayo way back in 1949, helping to enhance the sport here.
That shock result is known to this day at “The Miracle of Bulawayo.”
Not so when Senegal came to Harare to play in a World Cup qualifier nearly 20 years ago. They had just one single-minded policy, high kicking and then assaulting the receiver with fists, knees and feet. It got so out of hand that the police took to the pitch in numbers and with truncheons to stop the game. Senegal were sent home in disgrace and they were dispatched from the World Cup with world-wide condemnation ringing in their ears.
This was such a rare example of bad behaviour that this story also endures.
In recent years, African players have joined the sport with enthusiasm and with many examples of skill in play and tactics taking some of them to the highest levels. One of the latest in rugby was the famous Tendai “The Beast” Mtawarira who won several caps for the Boks in recent years at the front of the pack.
How about this for a list of other Zimbabwe-born players overseas: David Pocock who has captained Australia, Tonderai Chavhanga and Brian Mujati – who also both played for the Springboks. And for top UK clubs – David Denton, Don Armand, Eli Snyman, Mike Williams, David Ewers and Sebastian Negri.
The first match of the 2023 Six Nations will be Wales v Ireland and then England v Scotland for the Calcutta Cup. This “inside trophy” was launched in 1880 at the Calcutta RFC, India, and the name is unchanged although Calcutta city itself has become Kolkatta. This additional trophy will always remain at the Twickenham museum, one of the many traditions of arguably man’s most proud and vigorous sport.
Television coverage is being shared by BBC and ITV. It jointly cost them £460 million so you had better enjoy it!
*Veteran author and journalist John Kelley, who worked in Rhodesia and Zimbabwe for nearly 50 years, contributes to The NewsHawks from his home in the UK.